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Can a public official’s private phone be public?

1:28 pm April 1st, 2014

PAT JENKINS
Should the public be able to see public employees’ private phone records if they include information related to their official duties? That’s the question in a case involving Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist that’s been winding its way through the court system for three years.
Two lawsuits – one filed in 2011 and the other in 2012 – that raised the issue are awaiting a ruling by the state Court of Appeals. So far, they’ve been dismissed at the Superior Court level (in Thurston County, in order to avoid apparent conflicts if they’d been heard in Pierce County).
Glenda Nissen, a Pierce County Sheriff Department deputy, filed the lawsuits. She alleges that her reputation was damaged after she was identified by authorities as a suspect in connection with an alleged anonymous death threat sent to a former employee of the prosecutor’s office. The results of the investigation were reviewed by the Kitsap County prosecuting attorney’s office, a standard procedure that’s used in such cases to avoid a conflict of interest. No criminal charges were ever filed.
In an attempt to prove her allegations, Nissen filed public disclosure requests – the kind that any citizen can file – for Lindquist’s phone records and text messages. At first, Lindquist voluntarily provided some records before taking the stand that such information doesn’t constitute public records. Two Superior Court judges agreed with him, leading Nissen and her lawyer to appeal.
Lindquist, who as a deputy prosecutor once handled cases in Eatonville for District Court before moving up the ladder and eventually being elected prosecuting attorney, has called Nissen’s lawsuits “frivolous” and a precedent-setting intrusion into the private lives of public employees and officials if courts accept Nissen’s argument.
According to news reports recounted by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, Lindquist has acknowledged that he uses his private phone for work-related purposes. But Pierce County doesn’t have a policy against that, nor is there a state law barring public officials from such practice.
Advocates of open government have taken up Nissen’s case, claiming that it’s time for a legal decision on the issue. They say there is potential for government officials to hide some public business by conducting it via their private phones.
It’s a fair question. It’s also one that government conspiracy theorists could take to an extreme by insisting that policymaking and decisions by governments, despite being conducted publicly, have the potential of being carried out at least partially behind the curtain of calls and texts on personal cell phones. Stay tuned for the Appeals Court ruling.
 
Dispatch editor Pat Jenkins can be reached at editor@pjenkins.com and 360-832-4697.

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